It’s that time of year — when the green witch, grotesque, riding a broomstick looking for children to eat — appears in lawn ornaments, children’s costumes, scary movies. Across cultures and eras, witches were wise women, healers, spiritual guides. So why do we dress little girls in a costume lampooning or disrespecting a figure who would, in another time, be a venerated authority? Why do we sexualize, trivialize, desire and fear the witch? I spoke with Max Dashu, women’s historian, author, and founder of the Suppressed Histories Archives to learn more.
AfterEllen: We have a conception in popular culture of witches as ugly and revolting and performing evil magic to curse or befuddle good people. I want to talk about where this idea come from.
Max Dashu: There’s a large and complex cultural history about this. We are at the end of a long process of demonization of witches. Most people have heard of the witch hunts, but most people don’t know what that was about, what it was like, how long it went on. The tendency in the United States is to think of the Salem witch hunts — that’s the famous form, and that was very late in the process, in fact they weren’t even burning at the stake anymore. The people who were persecuted were hanged. But it went on for over 1000 years. It’s a difficult story to trace because we are not always dealing with periods of history that are well documented. There are not always trial records for the early Middle Ages. The lords running the manorial courts were judge, jury and executioner. But we have indications of this long arc of persecutions through mentions by chroniclers here and there, by laws that were on the books in various countries, particularly in Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. So were there are laws saying yes this is illegal, the penalty of burning at the stake is mentioned here and there. So that’s the early middle era. That’s a period I’ve written about in Witches and Pagans.
We are all taught Europe converted to Christianity and then were all Christian, and it’s more complicated than that. There’s all this heathen culture — in the calendar, the festivals, the place names, the lands around them, the customs, the ancestor religion, customs around healing and divination and how you solve problems — that fell under the purview of the witch. We see a process of demonizing the witches. In the period covered in my book, you can see people were still regarding witches as healers. You have priests scolding people for going to the witch for healing instead of the church. ‘You should not do that, this is evil, this is devilish’ but people had this longstanding tradition of herbal medicine, ceremonial magic, seasonal cycles.
What was witchcraft in the year 1000, 1000 years ago from our time? There’s this passage where people bring offerings to stones and trees and spring and it says in Anglo-Saxon Swa wiccan taeca∂ in English ‘as the witches teach.’ So that’s a very interesting chunk of information there. This writing was a penitential book; it was trying to get people not to do this earth-based spirituality, but it’s showing they were doing it, and it’s showing it didn’t have anything to do with devil worship. People tend to get taught witches were devil worshipers, and that’s a demonization of these wise women. But actually what we’re seeing in that description is they are practicing land veneration, veneration of the water, similar to the belief ‘water is life.’ There are many scoldings that say don’t bring offerings, don’t set lights in front of the fountain, don’t do these things. Because people loved the waters. They paid reverence to them. So in that time period, the word witch is being used as someone who is a spiritual teacher.
The witch is a counselor. The church didn’t want this because they wanted to have a religion centered around a patriarchal concept of god, and it did not take nature in. Nature-connected ceremonies were threatening, so they demonized the witch. So by the time we get through hundreds and hundreds of torture trials and accusations spread, many, many human beings, mostly women, being incinerated alive, on accusation of having sex with devils and other demonological pornography dreamt up in torture chambers, Europe looks very different after that happened. We end up with this very ugly image of the witch as someone connected with the devil, who does harm to people, does harmful sorcery. That’s what we inherit.
AE: So it took a concerted effort over hundreds of years for the church and establishment to convince lay people that their customs were led by evil, fraudulent women and that was in violation of the church.
There’s an idea that everything has to be in the hands of this all-male priesthood, so anything else has to be illegitimate.
So there are two strands — one could be called the old folk religions. There were Germanic forms, Slavic forms, Italian, Celtic, basically ethnic groups that had their own spiritual forms, and this was superseded by Roman Christianity. So the church dictates everything has to be done in Latin, it can’t be in the language of the people. So that’s one process: the overthrow of the old spiritual traditions. Another important dynamic is demonizing the witch as a female archetype was part of a process of attacking female spheres of power and women.
When we look at women as healers, herbalists, midwives, oracles, for example in Scandinavia there is strong documentation of shamanic priestesses ‘staff women’ named for the ceremonial staff they used — the idea women could lead spirituality is not some kind of unusual thing. When you look at a global perspective, you see female shamans all over the planet. Asia, Africa, the Americas, there are many examples of female leadership, and that used to exist in Europe as well. But we are not taught about that, and when we are, it’s in a twisted way — those were evil things that needed to be stamped out. Early Christians even had female prophets. These traditions were still present in ancient times.
To get back to the theme of misogyny, witch persecution became a convenient way of suppressing female power. That’s still with us in the archetype in the witch — the powerful woman is a bad woman, the old woman is a bad woman, the old green witch with a mole on her chin is associated with the dead perhaps in that symbolism too, but the idea that the witch was connected with evil is a part of a large shift from positive images of women, shifting over instead to the idea that female power is a threat to society.
AE: Women were hunted, tried and burned, but given the vast number, it must have been that not all were witches. The sheer number of women, old, unmarried, rebellious, they could be accused of witchcraft whether or not they were actually leading ritual.
MD: In the early period you see those who were actually in some way involved in herbalism or ritual, but over time this accusation becomes more about sexual politics. The mythology of witch hunting — all this business about the devil, evildoing, and flight through the air — that’s a twisting around of the old shamanic culture. Whatever traces of that remained were made into something evil. Over time, witch persecution became a way to attack powerful women.
This ideology, which I call diabolism, arises within the machinery of persecution, and it comes out of the church idea of the devil and that all deities of other religions are all devils. For instance, very early in French history we have Gaulish people who still worship a goddess, maybe they didn’t even call her Diana, but the priests put everything in Latin, so they call her Diana.
But by the period of the Inquisition, the demonology percolating among the scholastics in the church, they were about the evils that the devils do. They asked, ‘How can magic work? It must be because the devil allows these things to be done.’ They had this explanation of that that was very different than the ethnic traditions, because it was this outsider view talking about the power of devils. ‘Why did the witches cure? How did they accomplish this? Well, it must be because God gave the devil permission to do these things.’ The explanation becomes very convoluted. The idea of devil worship becomes very important. The witch is evil, therefore she must be getting her power from the evil one.
A. The witches are worshiping devils and B. There is a pornography of devils arising in the torture chambers, and it’s saying the witch has sex with the devil. What the tortured women are forced to do in order to make the torment stop is to repeat the fantasies back to their torturers. This has had a huge impact on European culture and on the way sexuality is framed when you think about the tropes around sexuality, dungeons, torture, chains, gags, binding women. This is all infused with things that were actually practiced on real women’s bodies in the torture chambers.
But this didn’t only happen in secret out of view in the torture chamber. The so-called confessions the women were forced to repeat to make the torture stop, the confessions were read out in public before the execution. They were given a choice, ‘well we won’t burn you alive; we’ll strangle you first, if you will assent to the reading of the charges in front of the people.’ So the people who came avidly to watch these executions will point and say, ‘oh she did these things, she admitted it.’ The belief in these things begins to spread. It’s like this toxic meme that spreads from the culture, and it’s a scapegoating meme.
It’s an oppressive society, the peasant revolts are all overthrown with a lot of anger, people are oppressed and they can’t lash out against their oppressors, so looking for a scapegoat looks good to a lot of people. Witches are one group, Jews, Romani are others. All three were accused of ritual murders. The blood libel — the idea that witches kill babies. It began with the priests accusing herbalists of giving potions to women so they would not conceive. The priests say that’s homicide. You’re killing babies because you’re causing women to “drink sterility.”
There are a lot of complicated lines of influence there because some of this is coming out of the late Roman world where this was leveled against Jews, heretics and witches. We see how easy it is for people who are frustrated angry and want someone to blame. It’s very effective at squashing resistance to oppression. It’s so much easier to go after women than the powerful warlords. They said ‘it must be her fault because why would they accuse her?’
AE: I was glad to hear you repeat your earlier use of the word pornography because our readers need to understand that. No one thinks about pornography before the age of nude magazines but what you’re saying is that the crimes that were read out were titillating to the listeners. It was a graphic description of the acts and of a brutal power dynamic where the woman is literally in bondage to Satan. Can you say more about that live performance of pornographic torture? Later technology develops this pornography with woodblock printing and the Gutenberg press, allowing them to get more sophisticated about how they disseminate this propaganda pornography.
MD: the invention of the press had its impact. When we look at the Gutenberg press in the mid-15th century and you have the use of block plates for printing. That enabled a mass media press for the first time. Demonological books were one thing — the Malleus Maleficarum was a best seller. It went through dozens of editions for the next couple hundred years after its first printing. It spread these diabolist ideas among literate men.
The other dynamic for just ordinary people was not just books but broadsheets. The National Enquirer scandal sheet of the day — they would print off these sheets describing the witches of Guth and how they turned into werewolves and ravaged the community — and people would snatch this up because they would have a picture with these fantastic stories. They would have publicity for the burning or a description of a burning that had just happened. It was an easy way for printers to make money quickly because it was scandalous material and they had an avid audience.
How far it was from the reality of these women in the torture cells whose clothes had been taken away, and they just had on some ragged shift, and their bodies were there for the grabbing whatever custodians shuttled them from the torture chamber to their cell where they were shivering — the real conditions were not visible, we have instead this surface narrative about these powerful witches and how they ravaged the community. It’s an externalizing of blame shot at female targets. The dynamic begins against poor, old women. That’s the archetypal witch.
Over time, the persecution blows up — especially with torture trials — they would not stop when they got you to confess. They wouldn’t stop until you denounced others. So it would expand, and after a while, you see more people with money and more men, and when you hit a critical mass of that, you have people going ‘well wait a minute, maybe that’s not true.’ Then it would click off.
You have a dynamic of hunts that flared up and died down, and there’d be another generation before it happened again. Maybe the same woman who had been accused, fined, exiled or attacked in public in her 30s is now in her 60s, and they accuse her again and try her. There are examples of women accused and they get them in the end.
All these lines, all these patterns of how that worked, who they were, whether or not they actually had an association with pagan culture. There was a German woman called Blumenhexe, she could get anything to grow, so people said, ‘well how did she do that? she must be a witch.’ So she was tried.
AE: in Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin goes over this history and one of the things she says, and this is often used to discredit her, is the number of witches hunted amounted to more than the German Holocaust in world war two. She says it’s more than 6 million. I was wondering if you think the number matters and if that number is conservative or too liberal.
MD: Let’s talk numbers. This is something that always comes up. The number is mythical. Dworkin did not invent this number and nor did Matilda Joslyn Gage which may have been where Dworkin sourced that number. I don’t know if you know her, she was an intersectional feminist back in the late 1800s. She did a book called Women, Church and State which talks about the which hunts. She got the number from a German scholar writing maybe 100 years before her time. Methodologically his was not a great idea. He took numbers from the height of the German witch hunts and extrapolated those to all the countries of Europe. It’s a cipher. It’s a symbolic number. We can’t say 9 million burned at the stake. The question of how many women were affected? Were accused? Were shunned? Were denounced? That number could easily surpass nine million.
The number of women who taught their daughters keep your head down because this is what can happen to you. There was a huge impact on the way women raised their daughters to keep this from happening to them. I have seen accusations that this number was picked by feminists to surpass the number killed in the Holocaust and that’s false because the number estimated well predates that.
But we’re never going to know the real number because as I mentioned there are no trial records. Some places that actually did keep records, those were destroyed. Such as in France, Paris was thinking better of the witch hunts and the regional parliament was trying to hide them from the crown. They burned their own archives because it had become politically dangerous for that evidence to exist. There’s an historian of the Swiss witch hunts — we’re talking about the 1500s here — he finds not trial records, but payments for wood, tar and tow for setting the fires, and payments of the executioners including beer and meat that was included in the trial costs. So he’s proving on an economic level, in a Marxian way — we don’t have any judicial records, but we have financial records — that they were burning witches at this time.
There are so many reasons why the real number, we’re never gonna know.
Partly too there’s a mythology around this. When I was young the stereotype was the witch hunts happened in the Middle Ages and there’s this stereotype of the superstitious Middle Ages and how advanced everything became later on. Actually, they finally figured out the Renaissance is when the witch hunts started to really get bad.
Look at what happened in Europe from a different angle. If you put women in the center, common women, what was it like in the villages, what kind of art and sciences did those women have and what happened to them? We look at the arc of time from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages and on up to the Enlightenment. What are the transformations in women status that goes on there? I’m not saying these are egalitarian societies, these are still patriarchal societies, but there are female figures of authority.
I don’t think we need to create a fantasy of a time when everything was wonderful — you can’t say that about medieval Europe. It was a patriarchal society, but it did have spheres of authority for women that were gradually beaten down. When we come into early modern times there’s a vicious rage that lands on the heads of women. Society goes into a frenzy expending its wrath on powerless women. We have to look at that pattern because we still see it play out. None of this has been digested. The ability to demonize a woman and do her down.
I would add too, there is another aspect of this and this gets very intersectional. The way the persecution with fire and iron of women through these diabolist witch trials, the idea of devil worship was so ingrained in centuries of persecution in European society that it made a ready-made ideology for conquest. When Europe turn around and colonize the world, all the cultures in Africa, the Pacific Islands and the Americas are being cast as devil worship. This is made into justification for conquest and even for genocide. For slavery certainly.
This justifies European slaughter of peoples, enslavement of them, and this is not just of Africa, the native people in Americas too. ‘These are followers of the devil, therefore, it’s okay to do anything to them.’ This makes it very easy to build an empire. The blood libel turned against Jews, heretics and witches is then this is turned against native people in Brazil and the Caribbean saying these people are cannibals. There are European woodcuts of these native people supposedly gathered around cauldrons boiling and roasting humans and devouring them.
So there is a relationship, a close relationship between the persecution of women in Europe and that of entire peoples and the conquest of those peoples in the process that unfolds after 1492. And that includes export of the Inquisition. The Salem witch trials were famous in the 1690s but there were actually more in Connecticut overall. You’ve got the Protestant-led witch hunts in the colonies and the Inquisitorial-led witch hunts in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Venezeual. Those were primarily Indigenous and then later on the enslaved African populations. There again, you see women who are leaders in their own communities, witches and spiritual leaders.
We see that ultimately the witch hunts go global through colonial conquest and we have other examples of witch hunting — it’s not something only found in European culture. There are witch hunts still going on in present times. And in the majority of these, the targets are females. It’s a classic way of scapegoating women, ‘oh things go wrong we must find a woman to blame,’ the catharsis of a public torture and burning.
AE: The popular culture image of a woman on a broomstick, where did this come from, and how was this twisted from the original?
So it’s interesting, we start to see images from about the 1400s of witches flying on broomsticks. One of the earliest texts in which this appears is actually a satirical defense of women against the accusations, particularly that the witch is a woman who has sex with the devil. He is satirizing what they are saying and in this manuscript you see women on broomsticks. There are older images of women and descriptions of women riding on the backs of animals, which is much more shamanistic theme, the spirit flight, the spirit animal. That goes back to around 900.
There’s a series of priestly writings that talk about this, “Women who go by night with the goddess Diana riding on the backs of innumerable beasts in the dead of night across many countries.” So this, first brought forward around 900 by German clergy, gets hammered into canon law. Shamanistic practice gets demonized, instead of the original description of a goddess, and it becomes part of the witch hunt mythology.
AE: And spirit flight means a shamanic journey? An altered state?
MD: There are accounts from the Dominicans writing in the 1400s about old women who claimed they could fly in the spirit and they described experiments they did where the old woman they would put a flying ointment on and she would believe she was journeying, but then the priest was there and seeing that she didn’t actually go anywhere. But these flying ointments started to come into play in the 1400s. Literate men start to become aware that there are plants, especially members of the datura family, that are entheogenic or have a psychoactive property, and some are known to give sensations of flying (and some are also highly toxic, by the way). But the idea of applying them externally as an ointment rather than ingesting them may have originated out of a folk practice that is lost to us now.
The idea of flight is really subjective because what the external observer sees is there is a shaman who does a ceremony, they chant, they drum, and they may sink to the floor. To the observer they’re right there, the body is there anyway. But to them, they are journeying through the realms. So they could be in other planes of consciousness. They come back with information, some kind of knowledge, maybe they are retrieving a lost piece of someone’s soul. They come back with knowledge or a solution that addresses whatever the ceremony is being held for.
And I think it’s important to reunify Europe to the rest of the planet there are traditions. For instance sweat houses, this is something Europeans also had. They had a sacred balance, for instance, the sauna is a place of peace, no conflict, even if you’re enemies. The word for sauna in Russian, bozhena, shares the same root as god and goddess. And that’s where we look at decolonizing Europe. Before 1492, we had feudalism and the marriage of church and state, where culture was policed by the church and the baronial class. That had far-reaching effects that lead to the politics of conquest.
Max Dashu is presenting a visual livecast on witch hunts on November 1 and 4. She is doing a showing at the Feminist Library in London on November 16.